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Birdathon 2014: Birding Up Deer Pond Outlet to Sunshine Pond

Deer Pond

Deer Pond

Birds tend to be less active in the late afternoon; that is just a fact. The singing dies down, with many birds taking their siesta after feeding during the earlier morning hours. This phenomenon makes Birdathon afternoons a time of profound desperation, where the frantic search for any new species to add to a scant list made even more difficult by having to bushwhack to the few different habitat types in a limited area.

This is always the case during my Birdathon adventures within the Pepperbox Wilderness, with this year being no exception. With less than forty species accounted for so far, the pangs of desperation are beginning to churn away in the very depths of my digestive tract. My only hope being that the diverse and usually productive Deer Pond drainage alleviates some of my present trepidation, and rescue me from another less than productive Birdathon.

Please, Deer Pond give me a few more species; I promise to be good!

After spending the morning along the Cropsey Pond outlet stream and then crossing a few unproductive (at least in terms of birds) ridges, a more productive Deer Pond drainage is an imperative before the Birdathon draws to a close for another year. Without a bump in the bird species here, my chances of crossing the fifty species mark are less than nil.

Section Stats:
Date: May 17, 2014
Length: 1.1 miles (4.2 total daily miles; 6.1 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate

The only thing standing in my way of possibly getting those species now is being on the wrong side of a raging stream.

Now, I am not talking the Nile here, or even the Oswegatchie. A raging Deer Pond outlet is no such insurmountable obstacle, as it is still small enough to ford without too much difficulty. The stream exits the forest in the southeastern corner of the beaver vly as a narrow thread, before widening as it continues its course meandering through the large open area. Even with the water surging over the typically exposed rocks, it remains narrow and shallow enough that it will only take a few well-placed steps before reaching the northern shore.

Fording the stream requires its own specialized gear however, which thankfully just happens to be getting a free ride in my backpack for just such an occasion. Although some people suggest crossing in hiking boots, nothing can be further from my mind here, as wet boots to me are akin to a bath for a frightened feline. The freeloading time is finally over for my tan Crocs, which emerge from my backpack and quickly replace my hiking boots for this crossing endeavor, with a little assistance from myself.

With my Crocs on my feet as securely as possible, I plunge into the cold flowing water, heading slowly and steadily for the far shore. Carefully, I take each step, placing my foot in between the many rocks making up the stream substrate. My hiking boots dangle around my neck, thumping against my chest with each step, the boots laces tied tightly together, a single sock stuffed deeply into each.

The water is bitterly cold and the current is moderately stiff, but nothing beyond my abilities, even after a long hike from Cropsey Pond. It takes mere moments to reach the other side of the stream, where I hastily change out of the wet Crocs, dry off my wet feet before returning them into my dry socks and boots. Their usefulness now at an end, the poor Crocs once again return to their hiding place within my backpack, only to return should circumstances warrant their services again.

With the late afternoon sun drifting lower on the horizon, a quick pass through the beaver meadow is all that I can afford now. Staying east of the stream is a necessity, as its width and depth within the vly makes crossing it again way too much of an effort, especially after just crossing it mere moments ago. The meadow remains waterlogged in some places, forcing me to crash through the shrubby edges to avoid soaking my poor feet once again, although eventually it may be necessary to temporarily seek refuge from the wet within the surrounding forest.

The noise does little to interfere with any avian activity however, as nary a tweet is uttered in the meadow or from the surrounding forest. Although I scan the open ground, searching along the forest edge and often looking to the sky, not a single new bird species makes an appearance; there goes any chance of picking up a missing bird species here. The late hour combined with the stiff breeze probably puts the kibosh on most bird activity; either that or all my crashing through the bushes left them hunkered down and in a state of shear panic.

Finally, retreating into the forest briefly to avoid a wet area leads me to a discovery of an old trail, probably associated with a campsite carved out in the coniferous forest just a little farther north. The trail takes me eastward, where I find a rather recently cut log nearby. Although sawdust surrounds the log, it appears weathered by the elements somewhat, indicating the cutting probably occurred last fall during hunting season.

Not wanting to abandon the meadow just quite yet, I turn back and return in an attempt to squeeze another species or two out of it. It would be a shame to abandon the beaver pond before checking for any shorebirds, especially given how few on my list thus far – as in none.

Large beaver vly

Large beaver vly

Returning to the last remnant of a once glorious beaver pond in the northern portion of the meadow, I scan the muddy shoreline, which miraculously yields a single shorebird. One might even say, a solitary one, which is entirely apropos, as it is a solitary sandpiper. The lonesome shorebird struts around the pond’s edge, bobbing his body occasionally as if to avoid a pesky fly or two. Maybe I should try that with the blackflies whipping around my head.

Other than the shorebird, the pond and surrounding forest remain mostly quiet. As a white-throated sparrow sings off to the south, I leave the meadow behind, heading instead for Deer Pond with the hope of adding some more duck species to my Birdathon list. I am running out of places to survey by the end of the day, making it look as if this year is going to be my possibly worst Birdathon ever.

As I cut through the forest heading east, I take a slight detour to examine the aforementioned campsite cut out of the dense coniferous forest. Wooden tent poles, obviously cut from nearby trees, remain propped up in several places, safeguarding them from the inevitable rot of a winter lying on the forest floor. Given the campsite’s condition, I would say it gets little use during much of the year, except probably for the deer-hunting season.

With the sun slowly sinking on the horizon, there is little time to dawdle at the campsite, so within a few minutes, I turn east into the surrounding coniferous forest, heading for the unnamed pond just south of Deer Pond. The coniferous forest’s denseness makes me curse for not searching around for a herd path from the campsite, but within a few minutes, I arrive at my destination with just a few more well-earned scratches and scrapes.

Pond in large beaver vly

Pond in large beaver vly

Given the noise of my passing through the surrounding forest, it surprises me to find a single female hooded merganser still swimming along the pond’s far shore. Another species for my lacking list! While watching her disappear into the inky depths and subsequently reemerging a few moments later, another duck plummets from the sky and lands nearby with a splash. Eureka! The larger size and dark coloration marks this duck as an American black duck, another new species for my slowly growing Birdathon list.

After taking some time to scan the pond’s shoreline with my binoculars without any more success, I force myself to head north to nearby Deer Pond. Perhaps a few more duck species will be milling about there before heading on to Sunshine Pond farther east.

After heading north for a short distance, mostly to draw myself farther from Deer Pond’s outlet, something catches my eye, which is not too difficult given the bright blue against the browns and tans of the early spring forest floor. Walking over to this odd object, knowing full well what I will find, yields another Mylar balloon.

These balloons are all over the backcountry, as I typically find at least one whenever I journey off trail. Regular readers know of my distain for these irresponsible objects of celebration. I spare no time to shake my fist at the sky however, as I pick it up and shove it in my pocket without losing a beat as I turn northeast toward Deer Pond’s outlet.

With only a short distance to cover, I reach the southern edge of Deer Pond, just west of its outlet, within a few minutes of bushwhacking through coniferous forest from where I found the balloon. My point of contact with the pond could not be any more advantageous, as I am just south of the big boulder that dominates the southern portion of the pond, with a clear view north.

Deer Pond

Deer Pond

Deer Pond’s shape is reminiscent of a profile of a large flightless bird, with its legs forming the lower, southern portion of the pond, and the head, body and wing forming the more northern half. In this analogy, I arrive right in the middle of the bird’s foot, with a clear view up its legs to its larger torso. Although the view sounds nearly obscene, it is quite appropriate given the quaesitum of this entire trip.

Ducks, ducks, everywhere! As usual, Deer Pond proves to be a jackpot for all things waterfowl. With so many ducks bobbling around on the water, there is little choice but to extract my spotting scope from my backpack and put it out into action for the first time on this trip.

Three colorful males and one less-so female hooded merganser swim around up in the wider northern portion of the pond. Occasionally, one or two of them disappear into the water’s depth before reappearing, just as the remaining individuals disappear. Two different pairs of common goldeneye swim about, disappearing from time to time much like their merganser cousins. A single male mallard looks lonely all by his lonesome on the water, while three others circle overhead, eventually flying off into the surrounding forests. A female wood duck calls as she too joins the others flying off eastward toward Sunshine Pond.

Despite the significant contribution to my species list, I cannot remain at Deer Pond forever. With the clock marching on toward five o’clock in the afternoon, I am left with little choice but to move on to Sunshine Pond. It looks increasingly likely that my trek for the day will end there, as extending it on farther east to Raven Lake may be pushing the remaining daylight a bit too far. Or maybe just the laziness and exhaustion are finally setting in after the long bushwhack from Cropsey Pond.

Deer Pond

southern Deer Pond

The major obstacles between Sunshine and myself are a beaver flooded outlet and some dense coniferous forest. Navigating around the Deer Pond outlet is always an interesting endeavor thanks to the resident beavers. Although the water flows through a small crevice in a large flat rock that dominates the southern end of the pond, the beavers and their dam on top of the rock often make the entire crossing a swampy morass. This year, with the extensive rain from yesterday, favors the morass, with multiple streams flowing southward over and around the rock. The back-up water from the pond extends into the surrounding coniferous forest, especially on the flatter eastern side of the stream.

By aptly navigating via the many small islands, my feet stay dry, but avoiding the muck proves impossible, with a thick coating stubbornly sticking to my poor hiking boots. The quagmire does not stop there either, as going through the mucky forest proves equally messy, with the thick coniferous cover doing its level best to ensure I do not leave without at least one wet foot.

Luckily, it fails.

Getting to Sunshine Pond is never easy, despite its deceptive proximity to Deer Pond. Climbing over the ridge separating the two is not too difficult at the southern end, but the thick, low-lying coniferous forest seems nearly impenetrable, especially so late in the day, after an exhausting all-day bushwhack.

Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

The prospect of fighting my way through the thick forest weighs on me, but lady luck of the forest intervenes and delivers me a much easier route in the form of an old hunters’ path cut through the thick coniferous growth. Although its final destination southward I know not (though it is most likely the old hunters path I plan on using to exit the area tomorrow), the path is easy going for much of the way toward Sunshine Pond, as I found in one of my past trips to this area.

My handheld GPS style= proves handy for more than just recording my route for this blog, as it provides me with the ideal place for exiting the trail and returning to bushwhacking toward Sunshine Pond. The gods of the forest apparently are smiling down on me again, as at the exact point of departure the forest becomes decidedly less dense, although not entirely easier than before. After reaching the top of a ridge, my final destination appears downslope through the trees.

Sunshine Pond, I am here! You better prepare some new bird species for me, because I really need them.

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